DAMASCUS A veteran Syrian director who has shocked audiences by portraying a religious zealot who abuses women says his popular television series could help stop an Arab slide towards extremism.
Najdat Anzour's "What your right hand possesses," whose heroine Leila is forced by her brother Tawfiq to wear the full veil while he has illicit affairs, is being shown on television stations during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Oman and Libya.
The 30-episode series, set in Syria and France, has attracted a wide following, as well as criticism by some Syrians who see it as unfairly targeting the highly devout -- especially since its title is taken from the Koran.
Mohammad al-Buti, a government backed cleric who teaches Islamic law at Damascus University, initially described the series as a cancer and a mockery of God, though he later retracted his remarks saying he had not seen the work.
"When I film Damascus from the mountain I count thousands of green lit mosques and only a handful of theaters and cinemas," Anzour told Reuters.
"Balance in society needs to be restored. My target is those remaining in the middle and who have not yet turned into extremism," said the 56-year-old director of pan Arab fame.
Anzour argues for wider political freedom in the Arab world and says "wrong" interpretations of Islam cannot be allowed to dominate Arab media and television, with Saudi Arabia controlling major outlets.
"Lack of confidence in Arab regimes is opening the door to the spread of religious and extremist ideas. Our duty is to put the spotlight on the extremists to try to preserve the Middle ground. We dissect what they are saying and show that it has nothing to do with Islam ," Anzour said.
Syrian television drama is big business by Arab standards, attracting millions of dollars in investment and adverts and vying with Egypt for audiences across the Middle East during the month of Ramadan, when new productions make their debut.
While the issues raised can stir controversy, they are usually in line with the policy of the government, which has been controlled by the Baath Party since it took power in 1963, outlawing opposition and imposing emergency law still in force.
The state, which crushed the Muslim Brotherhood as well as secular opposition parties in the 1980s, has recently made it clear that it does not favour having fully veiled women in the education system.
But the authorities have been tolerant of other Muslim religious displays and support the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas and Lebanon's Hezbollah Shi'ite movement.
"NOT MOCKING ISLAM"
Anzour says the series does not exclusively criticise religious characters, and shows unsavory secular figures as well.
Leila's devout father opposes her brother dictating how she dresses, as well as his decision to whip her after he catches her with her boyfriend -- despite a medical examination showing she was still a virgin.
Impervious to contradictions, Tawfiq gets a high school girl pregnant and starts an affair with a wife of an Islamist militant who died fighting in Iraq.
The series, which ends this week, shows Tawfiq espousing violence as hints of his private transgressions become known to his family. He preaches that violence should be used to make people adhere to what he regards as strict tenets of faith and that it is a duty of the faithful to topple non-Islamic systems.
"I think some were premature in their judgement. The more episodes people see the more they realise that it does not mock Islam but searches for real Islam in the society," Anzour said.
"...Syrian society is a mural and I see these people are outside it," he said. "Political conditions will play a main role in reversing the structure of society and the terrorist thinking that is being spread."
Anzour's work in recent years has focussed on religious themes, including a defence of Islam in "The ceiling of the universe," following the outrage over a Danish newspaper cartoons depicting the Prophet. In "Passers by," he described how Arab emigrants in Western societies could turn to violence.
In his current series, Leila eventually marries a good man and moves with her husband, who subsequently dies, to France, where she removes the veil totally but remains a devout Muslim.
Anzour, a Circassian who grew up in the once cosmopolitan city of Aleppo, said he was not against the veil but women should have the freedom not to wear it.
"Out of the thousands you see walking in Damascus 90 percent are now veiled. This was unthinkable several decades ago," he said. "Are the women wearing the veil out of conviction or out of pressure by families and surroundings?"
(Editing by Dominic Evans and Samia Nakhoul)